The Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Moral Conviction

Reader note: Just so you know where I'm going, I'm painting a dark picture of religion in these early posts of this series. After these posts I'm eventually going to make a turn to more positive "solutions." But before solutions, I want to paint the "problems" of belief as honestly as I can.

In the last post I concluded that most of the violence in this world, from genocide to simple rudeness, is, in the minds of the perpetrators, reasonable and justified. As I discussed last post, most perpetrators actually consider themselves to be the victimized.

So, today I want to talk about the psychology of those reasons and those justifications. I want to talk about the psychology of moral conviction and how it can cause us problems.

I guess most of us think that moral convictions are a good thing. I bet most of us think that what this world really needs is MORE moral conviction. Perhaps. What I want to talk about are the dangers of moral convictions.

The psychologist Linda Skitka has done some very interesting research on moral convictions (to start in this literature see: Skitka, L., Bauman, C.W., & Sargis, E.G. 2005. Moral conviction: Another contributor to attitude strength or something more?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88, 895-917.) Skitka and colleagues define a moral conviction as "a strong and absolute belief that something is right or wrong, moral or immoral" (p. 896). Further, moral convictions are not just another kind of strongly held belief. Moral convictions are very different from other beliefs. Specifically, they posses three features other attitudes do not share.

First, moral convictions have a feature called UNIVERSALISM. That is, if you hold a moral conviction, you believe that this conviction as to what is right vs. wrong is not mere personal preference. You believe that EVERYBODY must conform to the criterion you believe in. To illustrate this point, Skitka et al. (2005, p. 896) cite a quote from psychologists Haidt, Rosenberg, and Hom:

"If one says, 'I value gender equality, but others need not value gender equality,' then gender equality is a matter of personal taste. If one says, 'We in our culture value gender equality, but people in other cultures need not value gender equality,' then one is treating gender equality as a social convention. However, if one sees gender equality as a moral good or a moral truth, then one is committed to saying, 'I value gender equality, and everyone else should too, even in other cultures.'"

When the moral issue is one like gender equality, we might not have much problem with moral conviction. But what if someone holds a moral conviction we're not so attracted to? Even though we disagree, that person is convinced that we need to conform to their vision of right and wrong.

The second feature of moral conviction is that moral convictions are experienced as FACTS about the world. That is, people experience moral convictions, valuations of good and bad, much as they do scientific judgments. Good and bad are seen as objective features of the world. In short, good and bad is just plain OBVIOUS. Thus, by implication, if you disagree with me, then either you are stupid or dishonest or evil (In my classes at ACU I call it the three D's: People who disagree with us are either dumb, dishonest, or demonic). But what is strange about these moral facts is that they also produce a strong motivational component. That is, these "facts" carry the judgment that things "ought to be" or "ought not to be" a certain way. Thus, if someone violates a moral conviction of mine, I have a justification for trying to stop them.

The third and final feature of moral conviction is EMOTION. That is, moral convictions involve very strong affect and emotion in both defending and protecting the moral standard. This strong affect can both blind reason and motivate impulsive behavior.

So, to summarize this research, moral convictions are very different from other kinds of strongly held attitudes or beliefs. Moral convictions are universalizing, are experienced as facts, and elicit strong emotion. Thus, should someone violate my moral conviction, I'm not just simply going to "agree to disagree" with them. No, a much more visceral and emotional confrontation is going to take place.

My point is that religion is where most people get their collections of moral convictions. And, since these convictions are universalizing facts eliciting emotion, religious people are primed to be upset with all kinds of people. This goes back to my last post on Roy Baumeister's work on evil. Specifically, Baumeister notes that, historically, the single biggest cause of human violence and cruelty is religion. And now we see why this is so more clearly: Moral convictions. Thus, Sam Harris' point (see first post in this series) is well taken: Religions deploy a wide variety of moral convictions and, given the psychology of moral convictions, blood is going to spill.

Now, I know most of you are saying (because I'm saying this to myself), "Not me." Well, all I'd like to remind us about is that violence can vary on a continuum. 99.9999999% of us are not going to shoot the people who violate our moral convictions. But there are other kinds of violence. Subtle kinds of psychological "killings" done only in the privacy of our own hearts. Of which I'll talk more about tomorrow.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

6 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 3: Moral Conviction”

  1. interesting posts on belief ... I found your site recently and I enjoy exploring the reasons for humans behavior ... this series is intriguing. I will 'stay tuned' for more.

  2. Very fair summary of our research on moral conviction. Let me add that when people have a moral mandate about something, they care little about the rule of law, how fair procedures are in deciding outcomes, etc., so long as their morally mandated outcome is achieved. Even vigilantism is seen as a "fair process" if it arrives at what people perceive as morally justified outcomes (the truly guilty are punished, e.g., Skitka & Houston, 2001).

    I'm not sure, however, that moral mandates and divine or religiously motivated mandates are the same thing. People who study moral development (e.g., Nucci, Turiel) have found that there are important distinctions between what people recognize as being religious conventions, and conceptions of morality. For example, ask an orthodox Jew if it is morally wrong to consume pork or shellfish, and he or she will certainly say yes. However, if you then ask, "If God or the bible said it was OK to eat pork or shellfish, would it then be OK?" They would probably say yes, under those circumstances it would be OK (indicating that these beliefs are more conventional and rule driven, than being morally mandated). However, if you ask an orthodox Jew if it is morally wrong to kill someone for stealing their watch, they would no doubt say "Yes, this would be wrong." However, if you then ask whether it would be OK if God says it were OK, they would probably still answer "No, it would still be wrong." Long story short: Moral beliefs, but not all religious beliefs, are authority independent. It doesn't matter what God or other authorities have to say about the matter, people nonetheless feel that they know with absolute certainty that something is right and wrong.

    I don't mean to say that divine mandates aren't powerful, or sometimes essentially the same thing as moral mandates, but there would appear to be some distinctions.

    I look forward to following this blog--interesting and important issues are certainly being explored!

  3. Under your definition, any moral conviction issue can be predispose to violence - including your blog. It is all relative to the reader.


  4. I think I would disagree with the research that says that all "moral convictions have a feature called UNIVERSALISM."My convictions are personal. They are for me. For example as a believer in the Bible I can see that some consumption of alcohol may be permissable. However, I have taken a personal stand against consuming alcohol myself. Because of a family history of over indulgence in these types of beverages. I have a personal conviction that consuming alcohol is not good for me and I will not do it. Even though I feel very strongly about my personal conviction I do not impose that belief on others. I Corinthians 6:12 says that everything is permisable for me, but everything is not beneficial for me. According to God's word I have the freedom to consume alcohol, but I have decided that it would not be beneficial for me. For me to drink would be a violation of my conscience and therefore would be wrong for me. If another believer decides that consumption of alcohol in moderation is o.k. for him then he does not violate scripture nor does he violate his conscience. For this brother consumption of alcohol would be o.k. His convictions are different than mine - both strongly held beliefs, but no need for violence.
    Biblical convictions are the framework that holds the Christians walk together. Biblical convictions give structure and guidance to your lifestyle. There are other areas of life where Biblical convictions are neccessary such as: lying, stealing, sexual imorality, obedience to authority, etc. Many (if not all of these) have an even clearer mandate in scripture for how we are to respond to these situations. It is neccessary for each individual to develop their own convictions in these areas.

  5. "First, moral convictions have a feature called UNIVERSALISM. That is, if you hold a moral conviction, you believe that this conviction as to what is right vs. wrong is not mere personal preference".  Moral convictions are personal preference. "You believe that EVERYBODY must conform to the criterion you believe in".  Most people don't feel that way.
    I know a lot of Christians and other religious people don't feel that way.  The problem that seems to be facing us today
    is that.  Is that there are those who seem to be opposed to anyone having convictions about anything.
    They call it intolerance.  Truth is, a lot of those who sometimes claim others are being intolerant are they themselves
    being hypocrites. 

  6. The idea of UNIVERSALISM does not mean that everyone else must accept what you believe to be true. You can have moral convictions that are universally applied to all humankind, yet it doesn't require a person to force those convictions down the throats of others. A person of moral conviction can understand truth, yet not force this truth on those around him. Of course, those of us who believe there are external moral standards by which to live, do believe it's best for everyone. The question is, is your moral conviction or code based on objective truth or subjective opinion? Those who base their moral codes on subjective opinions will of course tend to be more insistent that others bend to their set of rules and may even become angry when people do not comply ... a sure sign of the selfishness from which their moral convictions are born. Those whose moral conviction comes from objective truth, proven and sustainable, will/should see others with compassion, realizing that until others come to believe as they do, these others will have moral compasses not properly set and the choices they make will be based on lies. Moral convictions are based in what people PERCEIVE to be FACT. In science, to prove something true, you have to rely on external facts. In mathematics, the same is true. The problem is, people make up their own set of facts, because they are blind to the truth. Either something is true or it isn't. Either it's a fact, or it isn't. Everyone believes in one way or another that there is good and evil in this world and that it is obvious. It's in our vocabulary, we see it acted out every day in our own private lives as well as the lives of others. The question here is whether or not there is ABSOLUTE TRUTH. If not, then where in the world is the moral compass? It's all over the place in the hearts of "good" and "evil" men and women. If absolute truth does not exist, then everyone's convictions are right. The problem with that, is there are so many DIFFERENT convictions. So what is right for one person is not right for another, yet people tend to oppress other people in an attempt to get them to accept the convictions that serve themselves the most. If there is absolute truth, then there is no need for an internal compass. There is one already set to perfection and those who see it can set their own lives to follow its direction. This again does not require forcing others to believe the same thing. This is personal. Your third feature, EMOTION, is just a natural human response to everything that occurs in life. But, again, if someone is using an external moral compass based on absolute truth instead of an internal belief system based on experience and selfishness, then the extent of their emotion will be of no consequence to those who choose not to believe as they do. Basically, it is people who believe that there should be no morality, no conscience to guide them, or believe that they have the truth for themselves, but are far from it, those are the people that should concern and even frighten us. Everyone has a belief system, whether it's choosing not to believe or choosing to believe a specific lie, or choosing to believe the truth. Our vocabulary is rife with words that prove my point. True, false, right, wrong, good, evil, fact, fiction, love, hate, war, peace. Objective morality is necessary for a society to exist. Without it, society ceases to work together and tears itself apart.

Leave a Reply